The future face of trust

One of the major issues the digital identity community is trying to solve is trust – how can you trust someone with an important online transaction when you don’t see her face or any identifying document.

The immediate solution is to import the trust we have in the physical world into the digital. When you are presented with a government-issued photo ID you are usually comfortable with a person’s identity. And indeed, since early internet times we have been asked to come in for a face-to-face authentication session before being allowed to access our online bank account, and asked to fax and scan different proofs for out identity.

Envisioning the future digital identity ecosystem, most people still see that as the way to achieve trust in a person’s identity, just more efficiently: Your IDP (identity provider) will verify your identity once, along with attributes such as age and address. After that, for any online transaction your counterpart (either a service or an individual) could rely on the IDP’s verification instead of conducting their own. Such a system is already in place in the Nordics – BankID is an inter-bank scheme through which any online service can use banks ID verification online, with the help of a code-table or a smart card, and lately a mobile phone. In the UK, the Post Office plans to offer verification services to future IDPs through its branch network.

There are also start-ups that are trying to find smarter ways, that will not require people to get into a branch to get identified. Miicard from the UK is using your existing bank credentials to verify your identity. When signing up for a Miicard identity, you can connect your bank account and the service will verify that your personal details are correct. This is a way to “piggy-back” on reliable  banking verification methods even when the banks themselves are not providing identity services.

But the digital space allows for new forms of trust that are not possible in the physical world. Trust in a person’s identity is important, but it doesn’t mean that the person is trustworthy. But think about this – what if you could also see at the same time that he has 5 recommendations on LinkedIn, 20 enthusiastic reviews as a host at AirBNB and 50 positive reviews as an eBay seller? or maybe aggregate all of them into one “reputation index” you would see as part of their identity? that could be quite reassuring.  There are people that have already recognised this future and are working to make it a reality. One of them is Rachel Botsman, and you can watch her fascinating TED talk on the subject here.

This is exactly what excites me about this field – digital identity will enable us to do much more than replicate the physical world. A trustworthy ecosystem will lead to new ways of integrating personal data to increase efficiency and create new services. However, in order to make it a reality  we need to take it step by step. A secure, easy-to-use digital version of our ID card is the first step and “reputation index” is the second if we are to drive mass adoption for a new way of transacting online.